Bureaucratic Inertia Research Paper Starter

Bureaucratic Inertia

(Research Starters)

A summary of some of the ways in which sociologists and organizational theorists have criticized bureaucracy as an organizational form, particularly with respect to efficiency and productivity is provided. Factors that threaten the functioning of a bureaucracy often lead to what is generally referred to as "bureaucratic inertia." Other criticisms address the manner in which bureaucracy impacts people - in terms of motivation, creativity, morality, and human potential. Before addressing these criticisms, however, bureaucracy is defined, paying particular attention to the characteristics identified by German sociologist Max Weber. Finally, alternative viewpoints are introduced. Although bureaucracy is heavily attacked, by academic scholars and laypersons alike, many theorists suggest it is superior to other forms of organization. Their arguments are explored here as well.

Keywords Bureaucracy; Efficiency; Flexibility; Goal Displacement; Hierarchy; Information Pathologies; Open Organizations; Professionalism; Rationality; Trained Incapacity

Bureaucratic Inertia


In the minds of the average twenty-first century world citizen, bureaucracy has come to be associated with a long list of negative attributes: impersonal, rigid, cold, inefficient, and burdensome. As Adler writes, "Colloquially speaking, bureaucracy means red tape, over-controlling bosses, and apathetic employees" (1999, p. 36). Or as Greenwald colorfully describes, "most galling to the man or woman in the street is a sense that bureaucracy imposes unnecessary barriers to getting things done" (2008, p. 340). The lay person's perception of bureaucracy as a large and slow-moving machine has basis in reality; what is referred to more generally as bureaucratic inertia is a multi-faceted phenomenon that often times characterizes large organizations. On the other hand, organizational theorists - while recognizing the inherent drawbacks to bureaucracy - generally hold them in higher esteem. "At least for the large-scale operations upon which modern society depends, bureaucracy may well be superior to any type of organization feasible now or in the future" (Greenwald, 2008, p. 341). The tension between these two perspectives will be explored in the summary that follows.

Before exploring the arguments raised by both proponents and critics of bureaucracy, however, it might be worthwhile to better understand bureaucracy from a historical point of view, theoretically and in practice. Although often believed to be a product of modern society, evidence suggests bureaucracy - in one form or another - has been around since the beginning of civilization. As Hanline explains, "the literature on bureaucracies can be traced back to ancient China" (1993, p. 514). Nevertheless, those who study its modern origins rarely look past the writings of Max Weber, an early twentieth century German philosopher. Understanding the context in which Weber lived and worked is critical to understanding his perspective of bureaucracy (Hatch, 1997). As Hatch explains, "For Weber, bureaucracy was not the ponderous, frustrating bastion of mediocre public serve that some people associate with the concept, but was a rationalized, moral alternative to the common practice of nepotism and the abuses of power that were rampant in the feudal, pre-industrial world from which the modern organization emerged" (1997, p. 171).

More specifically, Weber believed bureaucracy served as a "rational" form of organization, rather than a 'patrimonial' one (Hanline, 1993). In other words, employees would be hired on the basis of abilities, rather than on the basis of familial ties to those running the company. Similarly, promotion would be based on achievement, rather than favoritism. The reasonable and fair application of rules to all working in the organization, as well as to those being served by it, he reasoned, should lead to greater efficiency and impartiality (Hatch, 1997). Weber's model of bureaucracy was theoretical; in other words, it served as an 'ideal type', or rather, an idea of a perfect organization. Although he recognized it would never exist in reality as it did in abstract form, he nevertheless put forth an elaborate model, with clearly defined characteristics. The following list draws from summaries of Weber's work provided by Hatch and Jackson, Morgan and Paolillo (1997; 1986).

• The conduct of those working in bureaucracies should be impersonal and formal. Emotionally-based relationships, which form the foundation of practices such as nepotism and favoritism, undermine rationality, and should be eliminated.

• Employment and promotion is based on competence, achievement, and seniority; such qualities legitimate authority within the organization, so that those who lead do so because of their ability, rather than their connections.

• The work of the organization is divided into specialized and fixed areas of competence. Each individual is assigned a specific task, and has authority over his or her own functioning in that role.

• The organization has a clearly defined hierarchy.

• The organization has a clearly defined system of rules and procedures that regulates conduct in a strict and disciplined fashion. The rules standardize operations, provide a documented history of operating procedures, and ensure equal treatment of all.

• Those who work within the organization are compensated with a fixed salary; participation in a bureaucracy should constitute one's primary occupation, and ultimately, a lifelong career.

Even Weber, who believed bureaucracy to be an inevitable development in the modern world, recognized its shortcomings. Greenwald explains, "According to his thinking, bureaucracy represented social technology superior to other forms of organization. Superior technology rapidly replaces more primitive methods of getting things done. [Yet] Weber did not seem happy about this" (2008, p. 363). In fact, Weber's forecast for future generations was rather grim, predicting on overreliance on standardization and rationality. If organizations focused exclusively on how to get things done, without also contemplating desired outcomes or ends, bureaucracy would become "an 'iron cage' capable of imprisoning humanity and making man a 'cog in an ever-moving mechanism'" (Hatch, 1997, p. 33). His notion of the 'iron cage' has been one of the more enduring metaphors used by critics.

Further Insights

Critique of Bureaucracy

Weber may have been one of the first to call attention to the negative side effects of bureaucratization, but he certainly was not the last. As the size and wealth of corporations grew in the second half of the twentieth century, so too did the volume of the voice of its critics. Jackson, et al., for example, document criticisms put forth by sociologists and organizational psychologists writing during the period that spans from the 1940s through the 1960s (1986). Robert Merton (1940, as cited in Jackson, et. al, 1986) was the first to suggest that organizational efficiency has an inverse relationship with rigidity of rules; rigid rules tend to become ends in themselves, he argued, displacing organizational goals, and leading to inertia. Gouldner believed bureaucratic rules inadvertently promoted minimal acceptable behavior, stifling any motivation an employee might have to put forth greater effort (1954, as cited in Jackson, et. al, 1986). And Bennis, who became an outspoken critic and at one point predicted the death of bureaucracy as an organizational form, took multiple aim; bureaucracy, in his view, promotes conformity, discourages innovation, and is inflexible in the face of a changing environment (1967, as cited in Jackson, et. al, 1986).

Even though these theorists were writing in the mid-twentieth century, their arguments serve as the foundation for many of the criticisms that are still put forth. Indeed, themes present in their writing - the notion that highly bureaucratic organizations exact a human cost, and the notion that bureaucracy may be less efficient than many initially believed - form the backbone of modern-day criticisms. In addition, as the world has become more technological, interdependent, and rapidly changing, others have criticized bureaucracies for being too insular, and for not responding adequately to new demands. All of these criticisms address, in one way or another, the overarching question of whether or not bureaucracy is the best way to organize ourselves in order to achieve our objectives. Or whether, instead, bureaucracy impedes progress.

Information Pathologies

Because bureaucracies are hierarchical in nature, communication must often flow through multiple layers of an organization. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, bureaucracies are prone to errors in communication, or what Greenwald refers to as "information pathologies" (2008). More specifically, Hall identifies three types of communication errors: omission, distortion, and overload (2002). Omission and distortion may be unintentional - when the recipient of a message is unable to fully understand its content, for example - or intentional, if one party sees an advantage to restricting the flow of information. In either case, information pathologies lead to bad-decision making, and ultimately inefficiency (Greenwald, 2008).

Goal Displacement

In theory, the rules and regulations of an organization are intended to facilitate productivity. When expectations and roles are clearly communicated, employees can spend more time executing their assigned tasks, and less time trying to figure out what they are supposed to be doing. When rules and regulations are enforced too rigidly, however, organizations put themselves at risk...

(The entire section is 4286 words.)